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SeaWorld CEO declares end to kissing, dancing for killer whales

SeaWorld Entertainment Inc.’s killer whales will no longer pose, dance or kiss each other in performance, Chief Executive Officer Joel Manby said in an interview, providing new details about how the theme-park operator is adapting to new animal-friendly policies.

SeaWorld’s orca shows will only emphasize actions the animals do in nature, such as communicating with each other and beaching themselves to hunt for food in environments that resemble South America or the Northern California coast. Manby is betting the more educational approach can lure visitors in an increasingly competitive environment when it can no longer promise leaping 10,000-pound beasts performing musical revues.

“Think of Discovery Channel, think of Nat Geo, think of a really good nature documentary that is educational but fascinating,” Manby said in an April 29 interview. “It’s entertaining because it’s fascinating, not because they’re jumping five at a time to wonderful scored music.”

SeaWorld ceased breeding killer whales in March, bowing to criticism of its care of the sea creatures as depicted in the documentary “Blackfish.” The company pledged to phase out killer whale performance and eventually stop keeping the animals in captivity altogether, a victory for activists. The theme park has struggled with declining attendance and share performance since the 2013 release of “Blackfish.”

Manby’s biggest challenge now is revamping SeaWorld’s entertainment offerings for a public used to seeing Shamu dance under strobe lights, while at the same time keeping up with theme-park rivals Walt Disney and Comcast’s Universal Studios.

Manby acknowledges competing will be tough, particularly in Orlando. But he sees an opportunity to keep his park priced lower than the others, creating an alternative for families on a budget. SeaWorld, which owns 11 parks overall, was offering a single-day ticket for $69 and an annual pass good for its two Orlando resorts for $168.

At Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando, the least expensive single-day ticket was $97 and the annual pass $749. Disney is opening a nature-themed Pandora-The World of Avatar in Orlando next year.

“There is a value proposition that I know we can win,” Manby said. “There’s a large body of families that Disney and Universal are getting unaffordable for and we can afford to come in underneath them.”

Manby’s growth strategy also includes building hotels near the company’s parks and creating attractions that showcase the orcas as sea creatures, not performers.

The company is opening a Mako roller coaster next month at its Orlando park, where visitors can learn about sharks as they wait in line, Manby said. Another ride in development will send guests on a jet ski-like trip resembling the company’s “Sea Rescue” TV show, which airs on ABC on Saturday mornings, he said.

Manby, 56, a former auto executive who also ran the Dollywood theme park and other attractions, joined SeaWorld a year ago in a management shakeup. Ending the company’s killer whale program wasn’t part of his original plans.

“My thesis coming in was if we just got the facts out and got the truth out that we would be able to combat the issues that were in the market,” he said.

Several things convinced him to change his mind: Customer feedback, conversations with other business people and a decision by the California Coastal Commission to prohibit orca breeding in the state if SeaWorld pursued a plan to expand its whale habitat.

“I’m certainly very impressed with the decision he made — it’s huge,” said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Washington-based Animal Welfare Institute and a long-time critic of the company. “They built their brand on Shamu and now they’re phasing Shamu out.”

Activists still aren’t letting up. Last week, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sponsored an event in San Diego to call for the orcas to be transferred to pens created in the ocean, which Manby countered would be more stressful for the animals than their current homes. The company has 29 orcas: 11 in San Diego; seven in Orlando, Florida; five in San Antonio; and six in Loro Parque, on Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands.

“SeaWorld allowed itself to begin to imagine a new and different theme-park future that it hadn’t previously permitted itself to consider, while also signaling to the general public that it is sincere about its mission, vision, and values,” said Martin Lewison, a professor of management at Farmingdale State College in Farmingdale, New York, who studies the theme-park industry.

The company is expected to report a 1 percent increase in sales from a year earlier when it announces first-quarter results on Thursday.

Manby has the right plan, said Greg Taxin, an investor whose New York-based Spotlight Capital Management owns about 4 percent of SeaWorld’s shares. “We’re pleased with the new strategy and the speed at which he appears to be executing it.”

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